Fall keeps chipping away at the hot, dry remainders of summer. It’s time to look both for the signs of the changing season. Of the fall migrants, warblers are here now. They will be especially attracted to water sources. Some of the most common species to look out for are Yellow, Orange-crowned, and Nashville Warblers. Common Yellowthroats (another warbler) like to skulk around in brushy areas, sometimes near water and other times in gardens and brushy, wooded areas.
With the dry summer there are not a lot of dragonflies around this year, but some of the regulars are hanging on. Twelve-spotted Skimmers are big, showy dragonflies that spend a lot of time patrolling over water. They have alternating black and frosty white spots on their wings. Some saddlebags (Red and Black) are out, too. Black Saddlebags have a black patch on the hind wing near the body, while the patch is dark red or brown on Red Saddlebags. The most abundant species I have seen is the Variegated Meadowhawk, a variable species whose coloration mixes reds, browns and yellows with white spots and stripes.
A few struggling fall flowers are blooming. Goldenrod should be covering the fields this time of year, but I’m enjoying the few we have. They are great attractors of butterflies, bees and beetles. Goldenrod has a reputation as an allergy-causing plant, but this is undeserved as their pollen is not airborne. However, they bloom at the same time as the less-showy ragweed.
Eryngo is another flower blooming right now. It looks like a prickly, purple pineapple. Gayfeathers, long, purple stalks that Monarchs and other butterflies love, should bloom soon but seems a bit late this year. False gaura is another fall bloomer that has tall, spindly branching stalks decorated with lovely white and pink flowers. Greeneyes, a yellowish flower with a green center (the “greeneyes”), has been eking by with a few flowers all summer and still continues. Several species of asters, tiny daisy-like flowers, are coming out now as well.
Monarch butterflies are on the move; I see a few each day now. Their favorite flowers include goldenrod and gayfeather. Likely because of the drought, it has overall been a poor year for butterflies. I’ve just seen a few sulphurs (a family of mostly yellow and white butterflies), even though Dainty Sulphurs and the big lemon-yellow Cloudless Sulphurs are typically among our most common species. Likewise for the Common Wood-Nymph (a big floppy brown species), there’s only been a few out when they are normally bouncing everywhere in wooded areas.
Hummingbirds are still around right now. This is the time of year to watch for rare wanderers such as Rufous Hummingbirds. We haven’t seen any this year, but it can happen. In the past, we’ve seen them right after cold fronts from late July to September. Some even winter on the Gulf Coast.
If you cruise by fields with short grass, you might find a flock of Swainson’s Hawks on the ground. These hawks are rare in the summer in Wise County, although as you go farther west and north they breed in open prairies. However, they are quite common in big flocks during spring and fall migration. They are heading south for the pampas of South America. You will often see them sitting in plowed fields or in areas of short grass, searching for grasshoppers to eat.
If you have the time to check the lakes and ponds, there are still shorebirds passing through. I’ve seen small flocks of Least Sandpipers hanging out with the resident Killdeer. American White Pelicans migrate through here in the spring and fall. Pelicans fly over in big loose flocks, rather like Sandhill Cranes, but they will also glide and soar. Look for their black wingtips and white bodies. Usually you can also see their big yellowish beaks instead of the long necks of Sandhill Cranes (which are gray anyway) or Snow Geese (which can be white with black wingtips, but do not soar).
Many birds molt this time of year. Molting is necessary for birds to replace worn feathers with new ones that will appropriately insulate the bird from heat and cold and rain and snow, but they sure do look pathetic sometimes. Cardinals will often lose all their head feathers at once, exposing dark skin. Grackles turn from “great-tailed” to “no-tailed.”
Whether you spot a flock of migrating pelicans or a resident cardinal going bald, keep your eyes peeled for the signs of the changing seasons. You never know what fascinating sights you will see!
The next monthly field trip on the Lyndon B. Johnson National Grasslands will be Nov. 2. We will depart at 9 a.m. sharp from the Forest Service District Office in Decatur. For more information, please contact Mary Curry (see below) or the Forest Service District Office at (940) 627-5475.
Claire and Mary Curry are nature enthusiasts based in Greenwood. If you would like to contact them, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.